Israel: This Pacers-Heat matchup is like a rare bird, in that we see it so seldom, high-quality games between two Eastern Conference foes this season. You have to celebrate it and note every detail while you can. Paul George versus LeBron James. Roy Hibbert versus no one even close to his size. Tough and motivated versus experienced and savvy.
Also, like a rare bird, we have to approach these games delicately. So I'll ask you this: Will the eventual winner of this tussle actually determine the NBA champion? OK, no delicacy whatsoever. But hey, that's how we roll.
J.A.: Man, I didn't know you were going to get all ornithological with this. I like watching the NBA, not birds. But I don't think we'll be seeing an Aythya innotata (the Madagascar Pochard, one of the rarest birds in the world) when we watch these two teams. That's because these are not the only teams that can win a championship.
In fact, while I think the Pacers can and will win the East, I don't think they can win it all. If they faced San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals, the Pacers would be at an experience deficit. The only Pacer who has forayed that deep into June before is Ian Mahinmi, and he played all of 27 minutes for the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. Prior experience is usually worth at least one game in the NBA Finals. The Pacers can't overcome that.
Israel: It's interesting, because I think it's about matchups for the Pacers. If Indiana were to face, say, the Spurs in the Finals, well, we got a decent idea of what that group can do against San Antonio two Saturdays ago when they dropped 111 on the Spurs and beat them in San Antonio. The Thunder, on the other hand, would be a nightmarish matchup for Indy. Paul George has said Kevin Durant is the most difficult individual for him to defend, and if the Thunder dictate pace, there's no way Hibbert keeps up in a seven-game series.
But that brings me back to this Heat-Pacers matchup. Indiana is everything that gives the Heat nightmares. The Pacers are huge on the interior, and they now have a legitimate perimeter threat in George who can get his even against good defenses. It's a little like the 2011 Bulls, but even bigger on the interior, and the perimeter star can't be shut down by LeBron as (relatively) easy as Derrick Rose was.
So this, essentially, is the nightmare matchup for Miami. What the Heat see when they look past Indiana is the finish line (that's not dismissing the Spurs from last season, but that wasn't a matchup problem for Miami as much as it was a brilliantly devised defense). The Pacers still see another significant hurdle.
As crazy as it sounds, is it better for the Heat that George is the clear center of the Pacers offense?
"-- Israel Gutierrez
J.A.: I'm not sure either of them want to see the Thunder. Oklahoma City handed the Pacers their biggest loss of the season (118-94 in OKC). Kendrick Perkins was a plus-19 that game; he's not afraid of Hibbert. And if you think back to the 2012 NBA Finals against Miami, the Thunder lost Games 2 through 4 by a total of 16 points. Now Durant is more complete, Russell Westbrook is maturing (don't forget the younger version dropped 43 on Miami in Game 4), and their bench is deeper. At their current rates, the Thunder would have home-court advantage over the Heat, and even that is more formidable than 2012. So even if the Heat get past the Pacers, an adversary from the past could come back to slay Miami.
Israel: I still can't help but be swayed by how easily the Heat overcame a 17-point deficit to the Thunder in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals (LeBron's "cramp game"). Even though the Thunder are probably better now, it's difficult to envision them beating the Heat in a Finals rematch.
That actually gets me back to the Pacers-Heat matchup. No matter how talented and explosive the Durant-Westbrook pairing is, the Heat aren't hurt by that as much as they are by the Hibbert-David West combo. Which raises the question: If George has become the top option on these Pacers, whether as a playmaker or a scorer, doesn't that play into Miami's hands?
You saw it in the opening meeting this season. Not only was LeBron intent on getting George off his game, but as a team the Heat have more of an opportunity to blitz George, disrupt him, force him into turnovers and just affect the Pacers offense. As crazy as it sounds, is it better for the Heat that George is the clear center of the Pacers offense?
In the playoffs, it won't matter how the rest of the pack does if the lead dog is off his game.
"-- J.A. Adande
J.A.: That's exactly why I keep saying the key for the Pacers' season is whether George can outplay LeBron in a series. Indiana won the first matchup of the season in part because George outscored LeBron 15-7 in the second half. In the playoffs, it won't matter how the rest of the pack does if the lead dog is off his game.
When you recall the Heat's 2011 Finals, your first thought isn't "Hey, that was Chris Bosh's best Finals, the one where he averaged 18.5 points and hit the deciding shot in Game 3." You think of how LeBron came up short. Kevin Durant averaged 30 points on 55 percent shooting in the 2012 Finals; he also had nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. In the playoffs, good isn't good enough for the superstars. They have to be great -- nearly flawless. It seems inherently insane that San Antonio's strategy in the 2013 Finals was to let the best player in the league shoot, but it wasn't until LeBron accepted that challenge and took those open jumpers that the Heat took the lead in the series. Whatever defense Miami throws at George, he'll have to figure out the solution if the Pacers are going to win. That will determine the winner of the series, even if it won't necessarily decide the NBA championship.
Israel: I still think in a seven-game series the Heat are more capable of adjusting to a perimeter player who happens to be on his game than an interior player whose size the Heat have almost no answer for. Miami has managed to fight off players like Rose, Rajon Rondo, Durant, Westbrook and Tony Parker by scheming well and using LeBron's defensive talents strategically. But figuring out how to overcome guys like Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Tim Duncan have been bigger challenges.
That not only takes extreme effort but frankly a little bit of luck. If Frank Vogel doesn't sit Hibbert at the end of Game 1 in last season's Eastern Conference finals or Duncan doesn't miss a gimme layup late in Game 7 of the Finals, who knows how those outcomes may have changed. So maybe the first half of last week's Heat-Pacers was just as telling, when the Heat managed to shut down George and take a 13-point lead.
J.A.: I find it interesting how far the Heat have gone to downplay these games. You've heard those quotes from Bosh and Wade; you saw those pics from LeBron, who seemed more concerned with his new shoes than the health of the ankles inside them. Maybe it's because the Heat recognize that you can't take too much from these games because you don't know which circumstances will be duplicated in the playoffs.
Who will be injured and who will be on the floor when they meet for real? Will a Hall of Fame-bound player miss a critical layup? Will the ball find its way to the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history at the exact right moment? All of those things broke Miami's way last season. The year before too. Heat-Pacers is as close a matchup as there is, and I do believe there's something to be gained from these regular-season meetings. Coaches and players can see what does and doesn't work. But in this case, the unpredictable variables will be counted too. How many games of the good Lance Stephenson will the Pacers get? How much can Greg Oden give the Heat?
These could all come into play. But I still believe it will be a referendum on Paul George.